Jonathan Franzen, Freedom and Birds

“As a reader, I'm too easily frightened off, if I think I am going to be subjected to nature”.

This quote from Jonathan Franzen, bird watcher and internationally best-selling author of The Corrections, was made during an armchair interview at theMelbourne Writer's Festival, titled “Birds of a Feather”, part of the Stories Unbound events at BMW Edge.

To hear a conservationist say that nature writing is off-putting, was frankly a profound, enlightening and pivotal moment in the hour-long event, which was attended by a few hundred people.

Why does an author whose books are read by millions, find it difficult to read (and write) about nature? And why did the interview pass to birding-related matters, without asking Franzen to further enlighten us on this intriguing element of the discussion and of his writing?

Franzen might be a bird watcher but you'll be disappointed if you think his books are going to be about birds. Despite having a Cerulean Warbler on the cover, it's “not a central character in the book”, says Franzen about his latest novel Freedom.

Freedom is about the mundane existence of a family of rather un-extraordinary but naturally complex people, whose anger about politics and the environment leaves them struggling to find purpose in their individual lives. It's set against a back drop of the struggles we all have, trying to balance our own familial problems whilst despairing about the world's ills.

Franzen's insights into the minds of people who care about things but feel helpless are, like most novelists, a reflection of his own life, state of mind and the people around him.

With some sense of personal dissatisfaction, he described how he discovered birds when a friend pointed them out in Central Park, a place he'd regularly frequented for years. He was vexed by the question of how he'd missed this entire dimension of life for so long.

Artists, whether writers, painters or musicians, observe and recount what's around them. I wonder if Jonathan Franzen considers himself a better writer for having discovered birds?

He only started birdwatching about ten years ago and deliberately and consciously avoids wrapping his hobby with particular purpose. “It's akin to writing because it's not for anything … art is for itself and not supposed to make things happen”, he says.

Franzen describes “falling into a birdwatching trance” and in a moment of somber reflection, how an environmentalist and writer went through academia to become angry, dis-consoled and helpless. “It wrecked the experience of nature for me”, he says. “ I have the sense that I hadn't actually enjoyed happiness until the age of forty”.

Birdwatching, it seems, was a significant part of his transformation. It's understandable why he'd want to keep this pure. Why complicate and destroy the one thing that's made you truly content?  It also seems that Franzen's own discovery of simple beauty beyond the complexity of life may have helped him better understand the plight of others and himself.

It's exciting to think that everyone can learn from this. That setting time aside to immerse one-self in a thoughtless union with nature, we may be better-prepared to tackle life … because we'd be happier.

So what about the conservation community? What should we learn from this? Here's an ordinary bloke, albeit a best-selling author, who's tapped into the psyche of human beings around the world at a fundamental level. Whether he meant to or not, Franzen has enlightened many people about conservation and the value of places, both of which are perfectly delicately touched in his books.

Meanwhile, the conservation and birdwatching movement continues to use sledge-hammer tactics to plague everyone with evidence about the decline and loss of birds and wildlife. Talking about communicating conservation, Franzen says “everyone knows already” … it's boring and it's makes people more unhappy and feel less in control.

This seems to be a real problem. If conservationists are on a path that leads to more unhappiness, this can only make people less capable of reacting to the cause.

Should we step outside the heavy rhetoric of conservation and political dialogue now and again, to spend time getting to know people? Should we stop compelling others to get involved in data collection and birding “with purpose” and just let people enjoy birds for their own personal reasons? Maybe we've been too close for too long and can no longer see the flaws in what we're doing. Maybe it takes artists to come along and point out the problems, before we can walk away, clear our thoughts and come back with a fresh approach?

The ideas and opinions that Franzen has about people and conservation, developed in part over seven years of what he calls “spadework”, for the book Freedom, are part of a movement of similar philosophies and activities being developed by artists and conservationists world-over. The Ghosts of Gone Birds project, for example, has similar ideological roots.

The title, “Birds of a Feather”, could have lent itself to a debate on the difficult and often controversial topic of how art and science mutually and separately influence conservation. It was kind-of what I had expected to hear about, so I was slightly disappointed at the missed opportunity. I felt the discussions drew attention to a disconnection without identifying the amazing possibilities, of science and art working together for birds.

It was nevertheless a lively discussion with the erudite and entertaining Michael Veitch and Sean Dooley as chair and guest-panelists respectively. I've no doubt that, it could have gone on for many hours more, had time allowed.

Franzen's own account of why and how he started birdwatching isn't unique. It's a story we all hear from people every week, who've begun birdwatching recently in life. If we scrape off the dull exterior of our own long-term obsession with conservation science, we will find that we all share a basic love of birds. That much was clear from the talks and was what made it such an enjoyable event.

Hear / See it For Yourself

Wildiaries • January 2014